Tag: policing

the Qoheleth of Austin

Texas Monthly has a terrific podcast called “One by Willie,” each episode of which features a musician talking with the host, John Spong, about one Willie Nelson song. The second episode’s guest is Lyle Lovett, and at one point in the conversation Lyle discuses Willie’s decision in the early 1970s to leave Nashville — which had turned into a quasi-Taylorized songwriting and hit-making factory — in order to return to his native Texas and start a new life in Austin. And that was when Willie became Willie – or, as Willie himself might put it, that was where and when he was able to really be himself. Lyle goes on to say that in his experience Willie’s most consistent and admirable trait is his acceptance of other people — not just his willingness to let you be you but his encouragement to you simply to be you and not what someone else expects you to be. He wants others to feel the freedom that he himself enjoyed when he traded factory life in Nashville for his own life in Austin.

It’s hard to imagine anything more clichéd than the language of “being yourself.” And yet, thanks to our moment’s everyone’s-a-cop policing of every minuscule deviation from every imaginable orthodoxy, as I listened to Lyle Lovett’s praise of Willie Nelson this hoary old cliché felt to me like a breath of cool clean air. I reflected that clichés become clichés for a reason: because they express something true. Of course, the time comes when that true point has been made so many times that it becomes a truism, and further repetition of it feels pointless and tiresome. And yet, like Fortuna’s wheel in the Middle Ages, the social world continues to turn and eventually that worn old nostrum that had become something to roll your eyes at takes on bright new life.

Be yourself. Don’t worry about what other people think. Don’t be terrified by the perceptions of others, by the judgments of others, the demands of others that you conform oh-so-precisely to their way of understanding the world. Just be yourself. I don’t really believe that life works that way. I don’t believe in individualism. I think that our selves, our persons, are made up of our interactions with others, are dialogical all the way down. Yet there’s something in it, something about the value of a life not lived in fear, not determined by the thirst for others’ approval regardless of who the others are. In this tiresome era of relentless policing, the admonition to be yourself suddenly sounds like something from the Bible’s wisdom books, an ancient proverb or the counsel of sagacious old Qoheleth.

dog whistles

A friend kindly explained to me that this post was quite badly written, so I have fixed it. Sort of. 

Perhaps the most tiresome — not the worst, probably, but the most tiresome — feature of journalistic/social-media discourse today is its fervent belief in the near-universality of dog whistles. Consider, for example, the convulsive and dyspeptic responses to the letter on justice and open debate recently posted by Harper’s. No reasonable person could object to the letter’s actual statements, and so those who pretend to be reasonable don’t even try. They ignore what the letter says in order to focus on what it really and secretly means, its inner and essential nastiness and cruelty so carefully concealed by a thin veneer of decent common sense. As Sam Kriss says, this kind of exercise in the hermeneutics of suspicion is “a virulent form of paranoid signification.”

You adopt the ugliest possible interpretation of something, and then you convince yourself that it’s true. In fact, it’s not just true, it’s so shiningly, obviously true that anyone who doesn’t have your particular psychotic read on events is immediately suspect. Don’t believe Corbyn was activating secret Nazi programming implanted in people’s brains? Well, then you’re probably an antisemite yourself. Bad-faith positions are never cautious or provisional. You scream them loud to drown out the doubt inside your own head. And because the other side is screaming too, you have to pump up your agony to match their pitch. The thing spirals faster with every improvement in our communications infrastructure.

Everyone is furious and nobody really cares. Emphasis mine. Because if you really cared you’d understand that there are differences between good-faith disagreement and malicious hatred and you’d try to read carefully enough to discern those differences. I mean, there are certainly plenty of dog-whistly statements out there — POTUS specializes in them to a perhaps unprecedented degree — but there is something perverse about people who make it their default reading stance to presume hidden malice in any old text.

Reading these people puts me in mind of a sadly funny passage in C. S. Lewis’s autobiography Surprised by Joy in which he’s describing one of the strongest features of his father’s personality:

It was axiomatic to my father (in theory) that nothing was said or done from an obvious motive. Hence he who in his real life was the most honorable and impulsive of men, and the easiest victim that any knave or imposter could hope to meet, became a positive Machiavel when he knitted his brows and applied to the behavior of people he had never seen the spectral and labyrinthine operation which he called “reading between the lines.” Once embarked upon that, he might make his landfall anywhere in the wide world: and always with unshakable conviction. “I see it all” — “I understand it perfectly” — “It’s as plain as a pikestaff,” he would say; and then, as we soon learned, he would believe till his dying day in some deadly quarrel, some slight, some secret sorrow or some immensely complex machination, which was not only improbable but impossible. Dissent on our part was attributed, with kindly laughter, to our innocence, gullibility, and general ignorance of life.

We can only hope that the Machiavels of this moment are even a fraction as honorable as Lewis’s father was. Not much hope of that, I fear. Albert Lewis’s practice of “reading between the lines” wasn’t founded on an unshakeable faith in his own perfect righteousness.

The point of the reading-between-the-lines is usually to discover the hidden bad motives of the people who hold a particular position — but once you have done that … so? Let’s suppose that you are absolutely correct, that you, with your profound insight and utter purity of soul, have peered into the hearts of the people who hold Position X and have genuinely discerned impurities there. Now what? Every good thing in this world, without exception, is commended by at least some people of impure motive and gross sin. Love is celebrated by the cruel, justice by the misogynist, kindness by the rapacious. No virtue or good deed is exempt from this taint, not free inquiry or free speech or free beer. Only a dimwit would think that the patronage of Bad People discredits justice or kindness or free beer themselves.

So even on its own terms, presuming bad faith is a useless exercise that typically disables you from reflecting on the validity, or otherwise, of stated claims. It shits down your own intellectual equipment. So as for me, I’ll keep trying to respond to what people actually say as opposed to what reading between the lines, AKA listening for the dog whistles, might lead me to suspect. I mean, probably Salman Rushdie signed that Harper’s letter because he just wants to protect his great fame and privilege, but there’s the tiniest sliver of possibility that he signed it because he prefers living in a society that responds to offensive speech by argument to living in one that responds by offering a rich bounty to anyone who murders him.